Two strikes, a tough pitcher on the mound, a runner on third and nothing I can do but watch. Being a dad of a softball and a baseball player is teaching me, pitch by pitch, the truth of the advice from Julie Lythcott-Haims’ book How to Raise an Adult: “Develop a capacity to wince but not to pounce.”
I was the kid who once struck out in T-ball, back in an age when they let kids do such things; today’s T-ball is a gentler game, probably for the better, sensibly focusing on skills rather than competition. The memory of that strikeout has stayed with me for forty years, and I can still taste the tears when I see my own kids try and miss.
Still, I know how valuable those small formative failures can be. They are lessons that transcend games and, coupled with the successes that are also part of every game, these experiences provide kids a perspective that can help them when they face the more substantial challenges of school, relationships, and life.
I also know how tough it can be to see my own kids cry.
Beyond the ballpark things only get more complicated, and I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I suggested that the dad in me didn’t feel more strongly than the principal I am thinks about situations involving my own kids. It’s in these moments that I know I should reflect on the practice of wincing I’m cultivating from my seat behind the backstop.
Would that it were easy.
And yet as an educator I understand Lythcott-Haims’ argument that an “inability to cope -to sit with some discomfort, think about options, talk it through with someone, make a decision- can become a problem” for kids who haven’t been given the opportunity to fail.
The best schools are in the business of helping students learn the valuable skills they’ll need to be successful beyond school. The experience of dissecting a frog or developing a Rube Goldberg machine isn’t valuable because we’re creating a generation of amphibian veterinarians or quirky tinkerers. Like learning how to take a photograph, compose a haiku, or balance an equation, the skills our students learn -often from the mistakes they make along the way- are meant to be transferable to the lives they’ll lead in a diverse and sometimes complicated world that changes dynamically every day.
Will they remember those strikeouts when they’re adults? I’m sure they will, though those early failures will not define who they will become as adults.
What will help them to define who they will become will be their responses to those challenges, their responses, not their parents’ responses. Our pouncing could help to define them too, but not in the way any of us would want them to be defined.
So I strive to wince and let my own kids learn. Two strikes, a tough pitcher on the mound, and a runner on third? There’s a lesson there, for me and for my kids.